From the outset, I was worried that allowing chefs to pick their own quickfire stipulations might lead to some half-baked (or overcooked, as it were) schemes, so watching the first three all go against the chefs that created them was a bit of a surprise. My fears seemed more real, though, once Brooke revealed her vegan dessert challenge, which is a prime example of how dumb these have the potential to become. She admits she's done the research, noting that classically trained Shirley doesn't have a pastry background and further limiting her by preventing her from using butter, eggs, and all the stuff that makes dessert taste good.
Occasionally the show asks the chefs to cook vegetarian options, and I don't mean to be insensitive to non-meat-eaters, but I don't want to watch great chefs handicapped in this way. Assuming the produce is appropriately sourced (the show often makes a big deal of this, when it can), I want to see the chefs' best dishes, and neither of these felt like particularly impressive plates of food, especially when the handicap comes purely in the interest of creating competitive advantage. Electing to go vegan typically leads to disasters like Jen Zavala's seitan chile relleno in Las Vegas. But at least we remember her.
In the coming episodes, when Duels has weeks like this one, where competitors don't have any history, it'll be interesting to see if that unfamiliarity leads to more ruthless quickfires. Though they're doing their best at awkward trash talk, Brooke and Shirley are strangers; neither has been an alumna of Top Chef long enough to gain a lot of familiarity with people outside of their respective seasons. So playing to your strengths (and your opponent's weaknesses) to guarantee yourself $10,000 is a fair strategy, particularly in a competition with this many talented chefs, but it left a bittersweet taste in my mouth that even two kinds of tofu couldn't fix.
But onto the results: Gail—who knows desserts—suggests that these are two of the best desserts the show has ever seen and Curtis's suggests that he's splitting his well-styled hairs to pick a winner after Gail and Wolfgang split the vote between Shirley and Brooke, respectively. Shirley puts up a good fight with her coconut tapioca, but Brooke (who makes sure to let us know that she "doesn't eat excess animal products") and her more-composed banana hazelnut chocolate pudding with hazelnut praline powder, pistachio brittle, (too much) Frangelico, and orange slices is the easy choice.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the most buzz-worthy moment from this episode, when Wolfgang makes an offhand comment about Gail Simmons' breasts. I'm sure that by now the two are old friends, but in a show (and a business, for that matter) that has an at-times complicated relationship with its women—the camera has been unkind to many female chefs on the editing room floor—and where only two of the 11 winners have been women, it seems a little off-color.
NEXT: Let's go to the circus